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Writing Poetry In English
[A good chunk of this is based off of the wonderful book Poetic Meter and Form by Octavia Wynne]

Sounds & Symbols

As Denise Eide points out in her wonderful presentation Uncovering the Logic of English, there are approximately 44 sounds in the English langauge, but only 26 letters within the English alphabet. Therefore, some letters and combinations of letters represent multiple sounds.

Generally, there are only two types of sounds:

Vowels - These sounds are produced mainly within the throat and can be sustained.

Consonants - These sounds are produced mainly by holding the tongue, jaw, or lips in a particular position (called an "Articulation"). They cannot usually be sustained by themselves and must be attached to a Vowel.

Vowels, or combinations of Vowels and Consonants, make "Syllables". If we can associate that Syllable with a particular Meaning, and it can stand alone without having to be combined with anything else, then we get a "Word".

Words can be made up of a single Syllable or multiple Syllables (i.e.: "Multi-Syllabic Words").

Word Stress

Syllables can be either "Stressed" or "Unstressed" (i.e.: one particular Syllable may be emphasized within a Word while the others are not).

This information can usually be found in a Dictionary. The Syllables will be separated by hyphens or dots, and the Stressed Syllable will be marked in some way (such as rendered in bold text, placed in italics, underlined, or preceeded/followed by an apostrophe '). For example, if we look up the Word "example", we will probably see something like this:

ex-am-ple

This means that the Word "example" is made up of three Syllables and the middle one is emphasized. Please keep in mind that the Syllable which has the Stress might change depending upon the type of English that is used (e.g.: "Standard American" or "British").

Lines & Meter

When it comes to poetry, Words are grouped into "Lines". The pattern of Syllables and/or Stresses within each Line is generally referred to as "Meter". There are three different ways that Meter is normally used in English:

1. Accentual Meter is when the number of Stresses per Line is a specific amount.

2. Syllabic Meter is when the number of Syllables per Line is a specific amount.

3. Accentual-Syllabic Meter is when the number of Stresses and Syllables per Line is a specific amount.

Like we did with Words, we can break down entire Lines into patterns called "Feet". Feet might span multiple Words, but are also differentiated from one another by the number of Syllables that they contain, and by which of those Syllables are Stressed or Unstressed. Therefore, understanding Feet is important for writing poetry with Meter, especially Accentual-Syllabic Meter.

This might sound complicated, but it will become easier after we see some Feet. Here is a table of some different kinds of Feet (a "S" represents a Stressed Syllable and a "U" represents an Unstressed Syllable):

Two-Syllable Patterns
Name Pattern
Spondee
S-S
Pyrrhic
U-U
Trochee
S-U
Iamb
U-S

Three-Syllable Patterns
Name Pattern
Molossus
S-S-S
Tribrach
U-U-U
Dactyl
S-U-U
Anapest
U-U-S
Bacchius
U-S-S
Antibacchius
S-S-U
Amphibrach
U-S-U
Amphimacer
S-U-S
...etc.

If you have trouble recalling all of these funky Greek names, don't worry! Just keep in mind that the patterns differ from one another, and that we put together Feet to make Lines of poetry.

We give the Meter of an entire Line a specific name depending upon the Foot pattern that it uses and how many of them that there are inside of it. We usually use anywhere from two to eight Feet per Line:

Name Number of Feet
Dimeter
The prefix "di-" means 2
Trimeter
The prefix "tri-" means 3
Tetrameter
The prefix "tetra-" means 4
Pentameter
The prefix "penta-" means 5
Hexameter
The prefix "hexa-" means 6
Heptameter
The prefix "hepta-" means 7
Octameter
The prefix "octa-" means 8
...etc.

So, to give a couple of examples:

• A Line made up of four Trochees is said to be written in "Trochaic Tetrameter".

• A Line made up of five Iambs is said to be written in "Iambic Pentameter".

We can also use more than one type of Foot pattern within the same Line. These sometimes have their own names. To give a couple more examples:

Spondee + Pyrrhic = "Major Ionic"

Pyrrhic + Spondee = "Minor Ionic"

The process of switching out one Foot for another is called "Substitution". If a Line ends with a Stressed Syllable, then it is considered "Masculine". If a Line ends with an Unstressed Syllable, then it is considered "Feminine". Substitution can lead to a surprise whenever one type of Foot is expected, but another appears instead!

A Line of poetry is not just a set of Syllables though. There are also pauses. A pause within a Line is called a "Caesura", and a pause at the very end of a Line is called a "Stop". These pauses are usually denoted by punctuation marks (such as commas or periods), and often indicate where one would take a breath when reading that Line of poetry aloud.

A Caesura can appear anywhere within a Line, near the beginning ("Initial"), near the middle ("Medial"), or near the end ("Terminal"). However, the end of a Line is not always a Stop. If you can naturally read through multiple Lines without pauses, it is called an "Enjamb".

Stanzas & Rhyme

Lines are combined into larger groupings called Stanzas. A Stanza might have a particular name depending upon how many Lines are inside of it:

Name Number of Lines
Couplet
A Stanza with 2 Lines
Triplet
A Stanza with 3 Lines
Quatrain
A Stanza with 4 Lines
Quintain
A Stanza with 5 Lines
Sestet
A Stanza with 6 Lines
Septet
A Stanza with 7 Lines
Octave
A Stanza with 8 Lines
...etc.

When Lines are repeated, it is called a "Refrain".

We can play with the sounds of Words within the same Line or across multiple Lines in many different ways. For example, "Alliteration" (or "Consonance") is when a string of Words that are close to one another begin with the same Consonant sound (e.g.: "Forever feelng free, I flow forward into the future.").

Another way that we can play with sound is through "Rhymes":

• A "Perfect Rhyme" is when two Words have almost all of the same sounds (e.g.: "fight" and "plight", "kind" and "mind", etc.). Since it is related to how they are pronounced, this may or may not be reflected within their spelling! Two Words can also have different numbers of Syllables yet still be Perfect Rhymes.

• A "Half Rhyme" is when two Words share a fewer number of sounds. This often appears as "Assonance", which is when two words share the same Vowel sounds (e.g.: "round" and "drown"). It may also appear as a "Diminishing Rhyme", which is when one Word is contained inside of the other (e.g.: "port" and "report"), or a "Consonant Rhyme", which is when two Words begin and end with the same Consonants (e.g.: "fool" and "feel"). It sometimes includes "Homophones" as well, which are Words that have the same pronuncation but are different in Meaning (e.g.: "there" and "their").

Rhyming can be done inside of a single Line ("Internal Rhyme"), at the end of two Lines ("End Rhyme"), or at the middle and end of two Lines that are adjacent to one another ("Cross Rhyme"). This pattern of where Rhymes are located both within and across Lines is called a "Rhyme Scheme". The Rhyme Scheme is usually represented by a string of letters. For example, the following letters represent the lines of a Stanza:

a
b
a
b

This would mean that Lines 1 and 3 of this Stanza end in two Words that Rhyme with each other, while Lines 2 and 4 of this same Stanza end in two Words that also Rhyme with one another. In short, Words that Rhyme are represented by the same letter.

Form

The Meter of Lines within each Stanza and the Rhyme Scheme that they follow determines the "Form" of a poem.

Poems with no set number of Stanzas are in "Open Form", while poems with a certain number of Stanzas that follow a particular pattern are in "Closed Form". There are many, many different kinds of Closed Forms (such as "Sonnets", Limericks", "Ballads", and so on).

Whether in Open or Closed Form, sometimes Stanzas are linked together by their Rhyme Schemes. For example, one Line within a Stanza will find its Rhyming partner, not within the Stanza that it appears, but within the next Stanza. This is called a "Chain Rhyme".

If the Lines of a poem are NOT grouped into Stanzas, then it is referred to as "Stichic" poetry (as opposed to "Stanzaic" poetry). If those Lines still follow some kind of Meter, then it is "Blank Verse". But if Meter is left out entirely, then it is "Free Verse".

Whether Free Verse is to be considered "poetry" or "prose" is up to the one writing it. There are no hard and fast rules.

Literary Devices

Generally, a "Literary Device" is a particular way of communicating a Meaning to another. To give a few examples:

• Two Words with similar Meanings are "Synonyms", while two Words with opposite Meanings are "Antonyms".

• A "Simile" is to describe something as similar to another thing by using the Words "like" or "as" (e.g.: "The moonbeams are like teardrops in the nightsky."). This is different from a "Metaphor" which starts to merge a symbol with the thing that it symbolizes by avoiding the use of "like" and "as" (e.g.: "The nightsky is a vast face and the moonbeams are its tears."). These are both distinct from an "Analogy", which uses something familiar to help explain another thing that is more abstract (e.g.: comparing the process of coming up with mathematical equations to the process of writing poetry). In a similar vein, an "Allegory" is a story that describes an abstract concept through the use of an extended Metaphor.

• An "Allusion" is a passing statement that hints at a broader context. It is usually a reference to something within collective awareness (like pop culture or mythology), so you need prior knowledge to be able to understand the connection that is being made. While they can sometimes overlap, they are distinct from "Aphorisms" (well-known sayings), "Proverbs" (pithy statements filled with wisdom), "Anecdotes" (brief personal accounts of some experience), "Urban Legends"/"Old Wives' Tales" (common stories or statements that seem true, but are actually superstitions), and "Idioms" (statements whose Meaning is different from their literal interpretation).

• "Personification" (or "Anthropomorphism") is to treat inanimate objects, natural phenomena, or animals as if they were human (e.g.: "The water ripples winked at me."). In the example, water is incapable of winking at someone, but such a description makes it seem playful. A "Fable" is a story that teaches a moral lesson and uses Anthropomorphism to convey it. This is not to be confused with a "Parable", which is a story that also aims to teach something, but does so with human Characters.

• "Imagery" is to describe things in ways that engage the senses. "Hyperbole" is to exaggerate (e.g.: "The Earth quaked as the book fell to the floor."). In this example, a book falling would not literally shake the Earth. This description is only intended to make the event sound more intense. "Irony" is when something is described in a way that is opposite from what one would normally expect (e.g.: "cold as fire", "soft as glass", etc.). It is similar to "Juxtoposition", which is to put two contrasting things side-by-side (e.g.: "from war to peace").

• A "Pun" is to use Words in a way that suggests a different, usually more humorous, interpretation (e.g.: "They had a photographic memory but never developed it."). In this example, the word "develop" has a dual Meaning. One can "develop" a skill (like memory) through practice, or they can "develop" film to produce a photo. This makes the statement into a kind of joke. When one of the Meanings of a Pun is risqué, then it is called a "Double Entntendre" (or more generally, "Innuendo"). Some related concepts are the "Mondegreen", which is when something is misheard in a way that gives it an entirely new Meaning, and the "Euphemism", which is to replace an offensive or unpleasant term with one that seems more innocuous but has essentially the same Meaning (e.g.: using "passed away" instead of "died").

• "Onomatopoeia" are Words that represent sounds (e.g.: "bang", "slurp", "snap", "whoosh", etc.).

...and so on.

Poetry As Storytelling

Whether they are completely made up ("Fiction") or based in fact ("Non-Fiction"), we often tell stories of differing lengths through our poems. Whenever we write a story, there are usually several things that we focus in on, such as the motivations of and the roles fulfilled by different Characters, or on the Setting (i.e.: the location and time period that they are in). If you don't know where to begin, just ask yourself one of the five "W" questions: "Who?", "What?", "When?", "Where?", and "Why?".

The "Plot" is how these things might change throughout the telling of the story. It usually follows a particular pattern called "Freytag's Pyramid": An "Introduction" presents them, and then the "Rising Action" describes some type of Conflict between them. Just like how a joke culiminates in a "Punchline", a story reaches an exciting "Climax" just before a "Falling Action" points all of it towards a resolution. Finally, everything comes to an end in the "Conclusion". We can create depth by providing related details ("Exposition") throughout, or hint at events before they happen ("Foreshadowing"). The "Main Idea" is essentially a summary of the Plot.



There are also several other aspects that we have to keep in mind beyond the content of the story itself. For example:

• What is the "Perspective" of the piece (i.e.: is it written in "First Person" using "I" and "We", is it wrtten in "Second Person" using "You", or is it written in "Third Person" using "He", "She", or "They")? Is the story narrated by a Character within the story itself, or by one who is "Omniscient" (i.e.: one that has the ability to oversee all of the events that are happening)? Is the narrator "Reliable" (i.e.: their descriptions are accurate within the context of the story), or are they "Unreliable" (i.e.: their descriptions cannot be trusted for some reason)?

• "Themes" are the general principles that a writing touches upon or the messages that it attempts to deliever. They can be anything (e.g.: ideas about personal experiences, relationship dynamics, social issues, etc.), but there are usually only a few that are fully fleshed out. "Tone" is the author's attitude towards those subjects. It may be stated directly or implied throughout. Therefore, it also includes the way that an author expresses themselves. How do they choose to describe things (what is their "Choice of Words")? Do the Words have a "positive", "negative", or "neutral" connotation?

• "Mood" is the feeling that the author is attempting to convey to the reader (e.g.: is there a sense of fear, sadness, anger, wonder, joy, or some other emotion?). "Genre" is how that work would be classified if you found it in a store or library (e.g.: romance, mystery, suspense, sci-fi, etc.). How is the story told? Are there other stories like it?

All of these aspects work together and it is hard to separate one from the others. For example, the Tone can influence the Mood, the Setting can affect the Plot or help to determine the Genre, and so on.

Easy Ways To Begin

There are many ways to start writing poems and/or stories. It is more a matter of finding what is most comfortable for you in that moment. Some examples:

We can start from the most general ideas that we want to convey (such as the Themes), and then find creative ways to convey them using some type of Closed Form as a framework.

Inversely, we can start with a personally meaningful detail, and then continuously elaborate upon it with an Open Form until a cohesive narrative appears.

If ever you feel "stuck", just pick a random topic and start writing. Even if it doesn't seem like it is going anywhere, the act of writing can help get us into a state of being able to write more fluidly. One can always revise it later, or pick out the content that they like as a basis for other writings.

But most of all, have fun! The more that you enjoy what you do, the easier it becomes.

Thank you for reading! ♥